Back in the day, when throngs of thousands jammed the Civic Auditorium for pro rassling matches, Maurice “Mad Dog” and Paul “The Butcher” Vachon menaced foes and maddened fans as two of the circuit’s nastiest villains.
The brothers Vachon reconvened recently. Butcher stopped by Mad Dog’s South Omaha home while en route from a wrestlers’ reunion in Las Vegas to his home in Vermont.
They played a few games of cribbage. They chatted. Then, as in the old days, Butcher hit the road again.
Unlike in the old days, Butcher’s wife was at the wheel. Unlike in the old days, Mad Dog stayed and watched his brother go.
Mad Dog is 82, in a wheelchair, and doesn’t get around much anymore. Butcher is 75, and uses a cane.
It’s like that old Paul Simon song, Butcher said. The one that goes, “Old friends, sat on their park bench like bookends. ... Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be 70.”
“You look ahead 50 years, and you think you’ll never get here,” Butcher said. “When you look back, it’s here, and the years went by fast. No regrets, though, not from anybody, not from Mad Dog. He did what he set out to do, and so did I.”
The Butcher was in Omaha in late April. We caught up with the brothers by telephone. Mad Dog said he’s doing “not too bad, for an old dog.” It was good to renew the brotherly card games, regardless of who won.
“The Butcher is ahead of me,” Mad Dog said.
The Butcher talked to us as his wife, Dee, drove him across Indiana.
“I’ve driven a couple million miles,” he said. “My wife is a former Marine staff sergeant. She’s not used to taking orders. She gives them.”
The Butcher told stories about himself and his brother, who played a bad guy role for most of his 40-year rassling career, became a fan favorite in the late 1970s and early ’80s and became known as a good guy in Omaha for supporting fellow amputees and for other good deeds. He would be seen and heard around town with the same shiny pate, black goatee and gravelly voice he sported in black-and-white television days.
Mad Dog lost a leg after a hit-and-run driver struck him on a ride outside Des Moines in 1987.
Butcher, a raconteur, recently released a self-published autobiography, “Wrestling with the Past: Life In and Out of the Ring.”
“I just stopped in Omaha to visit my brother,” Butcher said. “He’s getting older and uglier all the time. Mad Dog and I were playing cribbage when a friend of his came by, looked at me and said, ‘Now it’s really getting ugly in here. There’s two of you.’”
Maurice and Paul Vachon grew up with six brothers and five sisters in Quebec. Maurice wrestled, at age 18, for Canada in the 1948 Olympic Games. He won gold in the 1950 Empire Games in New Zealand.
“When he was 13 years old, he was working out to be a wrestler. He would run 15 miles three times a week,” Butcher said. “He would take me along. I was five. I would run a couple miles, three or four or five, sit down on the side of the road and say, I want to go home.”
Butcher said, and swears it’s true, that Mad Dog shouldered him and carried him for 10 miles.
Later, Mad Dog would say, “You know what they say, ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother?’ Well that’s not true about my little brother. He was heavy.”
By the time Butcher came to weigh 295 pounds, Mad Dog would joke, he couldn’t call him “little brother” anymore. But he didn’t stop.
Maybe carrying his little brother on runs is how Mad Dog, who wrestled at 5-foot-7, 230 pounds, grew those tree-trunk legs that helped him pile drive, claw and pound his way to the top of more than one pro rassling circuit. He won several individual championships through his career, which lasted from the 1950s until 1986. He wrestled in Omaha numerous times beginning in 1963, including a controversial victory over Vern Gagne on May 2, 1964, in front of 6,025 fans at the Civic.
Mad Dog and Butcher also won tag team titles together. They performed in wrestling shows around the world. Along the way, they played countless games of cribbage, a card game that uses a board and pegs to track points, affording time for conversation.
“Cribbage was the card game of choice for wrestlers, when you’re in the dressing room or traveling,” Butcher said. “One time, Mad Dog and I went for a television tour of Japan. We decided to play for $2 a game. We played all the way there on a 14-hour flight. For seven or eight days in Japan we played all day on the bus. Then we played cribbage all the way on the flight back. When we landed in Seattle, I owed him $2. Pretty even, don’t you think?”
As they walked off the plane, Mad Dog said, “Gimme my $2.”
The two have gotten together many times over the years, when they were named to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2004, and to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa, in 2003.
On Butcher’s latest visit, he read bits of his book to Mad Dog and his wife of 32 years, Kathie.
“I gave him a copy of the book,” Butcher said. “I said here’s your book. Now where’s my 20 dollars?”
The brothers laughed.
“It’s touching, all they’ve gone through in their lives, the low roads and the high roads,” Kathie Vachon said. “There are a lot of stories. Not all are good ones, but it’s life, and life moves on.”
Soon, the time came for Butcher to leave. As he and Dee headed to the car, Mad Dog’s words to them belied his trademark growl.
“Goodbye, my little brother,” he said. “I love you both.”
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